by Chris Jarvis
For twenty years, Goldblade have been tearing up the British punk scene. Notorious for their anthemic, straight up punk rock with the odd bits and pieces borrowed from rockabilly, hardcore and street punk, the Manchester based band are infamous among fans for their energetic and powerful live performances (I once described them to a friend when I was fifteen as the best live band on the planet after seeing them open for Misfits on their 30th anniversary tour). But like many in the punk scene, Goldblade are also known for their political and social conscience, and so we decided to talk with their frontman John Robb about his political outlook, the relationship it has to his music and how he views it in a wider political context as part of our series Music That Matters.
Cutting to the chase, Robb starts off by telling me that people would describe him as being of the political left, although he aggressively questions my request to define himself politically – “I hate being put in a box but I guess people would describe me as being of the left. Surely it’s time to move on from these labels though? I believe in humanity and try and remain positive in increasingly fucked up times when the wrong kind of radicals are waving weapons around, war is everywhere and the bankers are squeezing us dry. I believe in the NHS, I believe in community and I believe in people.”
Like many political musicians and artists though, it is clear that Robb struggles to balance putting his political beliefs into practice and committing to the arduous duties required of a band that is still actively touring and recording – “My activism is part time unfortunately” he starts, before reeling of a number of impressive campaigning endeavours: “I do things like compering the TUC march in Manchester or hosting debates in parliament and elsewhere now and then. I do it because I believe in it and they need someone for these kind of events. I’ve run a campaign to get a fairer visa system for UK musicians and I’ve been involved behind the scenes in a few things.” No small feat for any activist, least of all one whose touring schedule included dates with both Goldblade and Robb’s other outfit, the post-punk band The Membranes and who is also a prolific writer for and the boss of music magazine Louder Than War. This is in addition to his extensive career as a writer of multiple books on music history.
We believe that music is more than just a market force
Moving away from raw politics, we begin to look at the interplay between this and his musical outputs and the industry more generally: “The idealism of the counter culture that was then given a punk rock edge; there was so much idealism and energy around punk rock that even if it wasn’t direct party politics it made you question yourself and the world. From The Clash to Crass, there was some great ideologies out there and the main message was ultimately hope which is a powerful one. Sometimes the music can be more esoteric like on the last Membranes album which is about the universe and death but the way we try and conduct ourselves is political. We believe that music is more than just a market force but an art form and a way of bringing people together and even if we are an underground band we can still be part of the debate.”
In this, Robb touches on what has been the essence of his music. Goldblade, arguably the more overtly political of his contributions to music have rarely strayed into being ‘in your face’ with their politics, while keeping an undercurrent of subtle radicalism. There are notable exceptions to this, in the bridge of Everything is Porn, Robb demands “What have they done Mother Earth?” and other songs from Government Lies to (War!) Not in My Name are hardly subtle in their exposition of the band’s politics. But those exceptions in many ways prove the rule, and Goldblade work in the strong tradition of the punk movement, a red thread of anti-establishment volatility running throughout, without constantly shoving it down your throat. The best bands throughout the ages, from The Clash to Dropkick Murphys have done this with brilliance, allowing them to drift somewhere in the hinterland between the alternative sphere and the mainstream.
Of course there is loads of other music which is there
for the opposite reason – to pacify, to nullify, but
we don’t exist in their world.
On the topic of mainstream music, Robb is somewhat unusual in his views when compared to his peers: “mainstream music can be a great conduit for radical ideas – even if it makes those ideas less radical.” This is something of a ringing endorsement for someone who is part of a scene that is infamous for fans and bands alike accusing one and other of selling out, so sacred are the principles of the DIY ethic and the denunciation of corporate control over music. In another sense, though, he is scathing: “Of course there is loads of other music which is there for the opposite reason – to pacify, to nullify, but we don’t exist in their world.”
Whether it exists in the mainstream, or deep within the pits of the underground, it is clear he believes that music is an effective vehicle of politicisation: “It can be as simple as bringing people together – creating community in times of isolation, creating hope in times of cynicism, it can convey a message in its lyrics or its sound or the way it presents itself. Crass had a powerful effect – they made me think about vegetarianism and pacifism and questioning the world – paths I was already aware of but they presented it in an exciting way.” He adds a further anecdote about his extensive experience of political activism and tying this in with the musical world – “Three years ago I was the compere on the Justice for the 96 Hillsborough tour with Mick Jones playing Clash songs with The Farm and Pete Wylie and that was a powerful and emotional tour with a very important message. No-one on that tour claims to have turned the case around but the music created a sense of hope and took the message beyond Liverpool. The people who ran the campaigns were the real heroes but the musicians did their bit and it was important and proof of the power of music.”
Fundamentally, if you gather one thing from John Robb, and one thing only, it is his passion for and belief in the power of music. Summed up beautifully in the title of legendary Goldblade anthem Do You Believe in the Power of Rock ‘n’ Roll? it is beyond doubt that this is a man that sees music as not just an art form, not just a product to be passively consumed, but also as an agitator, a force to mobilise people and a tool of making change. If we had more musicians like this in the business, or more activists like this in social movements, just imagine where we might be.
Goldblade’s most recent release is Accoustic Jukebox, a compilation of acoustic recordings of Goldblade classics.
Earlier this year, The Membranes released their first studio album since 1997 – Dark Matter/Dark
You can read the rest of our Music That Matters series here.